Sobha Sharma Kandel, senior clinical prescribing pharmacist and co-owner of Woolwich Late Night Pharmacy says she has shared poignant moments with patients attending for their Covid vaccinations

In December 2020, when NHS England first asked for expressions of interest from community pharmacies to run a Covid vaccination clinic, I was enthusiastic and ready to apply. On one weekend my colleague and I together prepared the documents and filled in the long application form to apply for the contract. With anticipation we awaited a reply and at the beginning of January 2021, we had a positive response and a site visit from NHS England.

When NHS England first assessed Woolwich Late night Pharmacy as a potential Covid-19 vaccination site, it was the size and layout as well as our location that was a major plus point – and we were soon approved after the site visit.

We were initially the first community pharmacy registered to provide the vaccine in the whole of Greenwich and one of just 15 community pharmacies registered in all of London in January. There was a lot riding on us getting this right. After a few last-minute IT issues, the team made sure everything was resolved for the big day.

We went live on 21 January 2021 as an official Covid-19 vaccination site. We worked tirelessly preparing for the moment when we could open our doors to our first patients, and finally it was here. We were excited, but nervous. We checked our bookings on the new QFlow system. Despite only going live the night before, we already had 70 bookings — proving just how necessary our new Covid-19 vaccine site is.

Two of our senior pharmacists including myself were appointed as vaccinators, we also have an admin team, along with a pool of dedicated volunteers, who help to run the clinic. This included ensuring that patients were socially distanced, comfortable, and fully informed about the process and what comes next. All the hard work we put in paid off: everything went smoothly, and we can safely say that our first day was a huge success.

Patients were so happy and grateful to receive their vaccines, and they praised our pharmacy team for their hard work. By the beginning of February, we had already vaccinated over 1,000 patients. Since then, we have scaled up our operations at the pharmacy. So far we have vaccinated over 9,000 patients and are set to get busier in the next couple of months with second dose as well as first dose appointments. It is important that we limit the risk to our patients, and our families, too. That is why many of us have received our vaccines with no reservations.

Reassuring patients

The majority of patients are so happy and grateful when they come in for their jab. However, now there is the updated guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advising that it is preferable for adults aged under30 years without underlying health conditions (that put them at higher risk of severe Covid-19 disease) to be offered an alternative to the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, if available.

Under 30 bookings have been cancelled and these patients have been directed to have an informed discussion with a clinician first if they still want the AstraZeneca jab, so that they can make an informed choice. Any patient aged under 30 who received the first dose of the vaccine before, can receive the second one if no adverse event occurred previously.

This has meant that some patients over the age of 30 are now unsure or anxious about receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine and want more reassurance. We talk them through everything and give them the information so that they can decide for themselves. There has been more apprehension now than before. However, our bookings have not been impacted so much. We have had a couple of cancellations sometimes, but most patients do turn up. The consultation takes slightly longer now as there is a need of more counselling than before.

Being a vaccinator is such a rewarding role but also draining. Clinically screening each patient, providing reassurance, answering queries, communicating regarding the vaccine with people who speak different languages or with those with special needs is intense, but I enjoy it.

I have cherished spending brief moments with the patients, which can be poignant too. Some have lost a loved one to Covid, some suffered themselves with Covid and were in ICU. They will tell me of these things while I am vaccinating them, and it is such an emotional moment. Every single person coming through our door is doing this to protect themselves and others.

The good news is that infection rates are now going down and with each jab we are getting closer to normality. It is so amazing that we have got to this point and that the UK is doing so well with the vaccination programme. I feel proud of my pharmacy team without whom none of this would be possible.

This work has hugely impacted me as a pharmacist and has been a major milestone in my career. Being on the Covid-19 vaccine frontline and being able to contribute to the health of the nation, is such an honour and I will never forget it.